Dr John Kani

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 Images by: Mlungisi Mlungwana |  Creative Director Ayanda Sithebe | dressed and styled by  Ernest Mahomane
 By: Mandi Vundla |    

At the James hall transport museum in Rosttenville: Africa’s largest collection of land vehicles dating back to the late 1800s, is spread across the room. I travel back in time, walking through the space wondering who each vehicle belonged to. I am trying to connect to the memory I may have of any of the models being exhibited in the museum. One buss looks quite familiar but the ox-wagons could have been towed from an old movie scene because I have never witnessed such a wide range of animal drawn vehicles in real life, parked in one room. The registration plates look foreign to me, they begin with TJ, short for Transvaal- Johannesburg. Outside the museum, a familiar face I have only read and watched and heard about, stands as an addition to the collection of historical artifacts blowing my mind away. Dr Bonisile John Kani is a well-sound man exhibiting black excellence and cultural pride. Our team surrounds him, awe-stricken and gob smacked. We can’t believe he actually said yes. I shake his hand with all my nerves gathering at the tips of my fingers, anxious yet ready to explore the collection of stories that fill his name with so much weight. It is an honor to be in his presence and an even greater reward to speak to the man who utilized his plays and the power of story-telling to showcase the impact of apartheid to the world and succeeded at it. His courage has left him with 11 stab wounds but today his scars are adorned with accolades and I am glad he has lived to tell the tale.

Born in 1943, Dr Bonisile John Kani and I sit on the porch outside the west wing of the museum where he transports me back into his childhood. He revisits the place where he grew up in. A township in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth “Growing up, the parents were not around because they were working, but there was always a grandparent or an aunt living with you in the home, so there was a little bit of discipline and order in the house. There was also the community, who took it upon themselves to a point where it made me so sick, to tell me that I should behave like uTatu Kani’s child. They would ask, does your father know you’re doing this? The problem is that if you were cheeky, they could report you and you would get a hiding. It proved the adage that it takes a village to raise a child.”

In the 1950’s when the group areas act was introduced, Dr Kani’s family along with neighboring families, suffered at the hand of forced removals. As a child relocating to a new area wasn’t devastating, he says “it was exciting” but it took its toll on the elderly and he witnessed their sadness.
He emphasizes that growing up in the township shouldn’t be confused with growing up in the village. “A township was a place for people who were moved from their original residence, which was declared by the group areas act as an area for whites only.” Living in the township bore its lessons, it taught its people the power of a community spirit. “It taught us to care about each other” he says. When the neighbor was struggling, it was common practice to share your loaf with them. Township culture also meant you had to do away with the victim mentality, “It teaches you to be strong; to stand up for yourself; to fight for your space and to learn to defend yourself.” This is what gave the youth of their time a sense of identity.

In 1955, during his lower primary schooling, the laws tightened around the necks of black people and
teachers abandoned their posts after Verwoerd introduced Bantu education, which he explains “aimed to strip any sense of knowledge from the black child’s education.” While speaking at the Nelson Mandela University recently, Dr Kani highlighted the need for us to readdress the education of the black child from our point of view. He is reminded of Verwoerd’s cold and chilling question when he asked:

“Why would the black child be taught mathematics when he will never be able to practice it? All we need is for them to work in our industry. Teach him English so he can understand orders.”

I am numbed by the cruelty invested in these words and I am also beginning to understand the evils that founded Dr Kani resistance. The 50’s and 60’s were a period of mass mobilization, it was in this era of the ANC and the PAC movement that Dr Kani and his peers became part of the look-out-boys, they were tasked to stand guard to look out for the police while the political meetings were in session. The look-out boys would whistle in code to signal to each other that the police were closing in, the signal was carried like a baton from one boy to the next until it reached Govern Mbeki’s house where the comrades knew to abandon their discussions.

During the massive pass resistance, Dr Kani graduated from his post as a look-out-boy and was now a kilp-gooier (stone thrower) mastering the art of disappearing at the speed of light after throwing stones through the window of a police van. But the streets and the home front collided in philosophy.

On the home front, families wanted to provide a bright future for their children through education; mothers wanted their children at Sunday school and church. They were raised to fear and revere the word of God while on the streets, political education was the order of the day. The history of the struggle was embedded into their little bones; the schools had a disempowering set curriculum. “We were indoctrinated into believing that white people arrived on this land before us, or that by the time we arrived, the Southern part of Africa was vacant, meaning that we are foreigners to this land just as much as them.”

Of all the teachings Dr Kani chose the revolution on the streets. In the home they were taught obedience and told to show respect for their elders, but he expresses the difficulty in upholding that respect. “When a white man who is older than you was threatening or oppressing you, you had to lose that fear and those teachings.”

Amidst the trialing times, he remembers that growing up in the township had its joys. “We played football; soccer and rugby. We ran around with beautiful girls and there were times when we forgot about apartheid, we forgot that we lived in two room houses.”  But month end is still a sad reminder of how brutal the segregation laws were for that little boy. Month end was the time for the family to make their way into town to do whatever little shopping money allowed. The doc marks this as the most devastating experience.

“South Africa, is the only country in the world that put a racial connotation to the word town! If you said you were going to town, you meant you were going to an area for whites only, and going home meant you were going back to the township.”

It was in these ‘whites only areas’ that as a boy, Dr Kani wasn’t allowed to touch the toys in the shops and that memory still haunts him at the age of 74. Toys weren’t the only reminder of the ‘slegs blankes, Europeans allowed’ signs.  He relives yet another painful experience.  “When I needed to pee, my father would say make a rainbow, and I drew a curve across the pavement because the only toilets that were available for us were at the train station about a mile away.”

Far too many times a similar story has sunken its claws into my ears and I am always torn from listening to closely to the sound of agony but today there is laughter even in places where the story hurts.

We laugh at the image of a little Dr Kani making a rainbow in a whites only area, the mood is unpredictable with him. I can barely separate his tone from his performance voice. I feel like I am seated on a stage and I am the co-actor in a play I never signed up for. When I think a tear is about to escape from his eye; just as I turn into a growing well of emotions, the doc breaks into sudden laughter; a slight pause follows and I’m hauled back into the story; entangled in a whirlwind of moments and emotions, learning to spin and laugh on cue.

We are halfway through the doc’s narration when he spins me back to his high school years, this is where his dreams began to formulate. “At school I was very interested in the debating society, because I could speak English very well.” He gloats. He found great pleasure in utilizing the English language to ridicule his opponents while the women cheered for him in the background. But nothing compared to the moment when his teacher B.B Mdledle translated Julius Caesar into isiXhosa and when teacher Bhudaza he says, made them dramatize the set work to help them understand the story better.

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The lines from Julius Caesar are still deeply ingrained in his memory, he recites them zealously. “Friends, Romans and countrymen, lend me your ears. I have come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” The Xhosa translation has a little more gusto “Zihlobo, Maroma, ngabesizwe ndiboleke iindlebe. Ndizokuncwaba uCaesar, andizanga kumncoma.”

He recalls how performing those lines in full view of the entire class and hearing the sound of his own voice made him into a bigger man; 6ft 6inches taller. “I was the most powerful and the most popular because I remembered them” he says. But not only did he remember them he also internalized every single word and carried it to the funerals of comrades who were murdered in the wake of political killings. “Those who lay dead in coffins without names because they were hanged for raping or stealing from the whites; because you could never hang for killing another black person.”
It was the enormity of this brutality that informed every fiber of his being; it made him socially and politically aware at a very early stage, somewhere in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth.”

Dr Kani had aspirations of becoming a lawyer at a time when the luxury of dreaming was an unattainable dream on its own. He confesses that he knew nothing about upholding ‘human-rights’, that he just wanted to defend his people, even if they were caught stealing, as long as they were stealing in town! I burst into laughter without pause. Upon completing his matric, his father couldn’t afford to send him to university and his neat distinctions were no saving grace.

What seemed like ‘a future shattered’ marked the beginning of something bigger brewing amidst the storm. He couldn’t give in to the misfortune without asking the powers that be to intervene.
“I challenged God, life and my ancestors, I told them I deserve better than what is happening right now”

The challenge was accepted, and the Serpent Players were an answer delivered just at the right time. His friend told him about the drama group that was writing very powerful English plays but at the same time, the ANC was also recruiting people to join its military wing.
“We were asked and sworn by blood never to mention the conversation to our parents. I suppose we were bad actors because our parents seemed to have known, they watched us like hawks!” – hahaha

Though Dr Kani was determined to join the MK, this didn’t deter him from visiting the Serpent drama group. “In 1965” he recalls. “They were doing this play titled Antigone by Sophocles and I was sitting there listening, we came back into the rehearsal to read and there was Athol Fugard. Someone said to me John this is Athol; Athol this is John. At that time it was uncommon to be introduced to a white person on a first name basis. They did not say, John this is Mr Fugard. Mr Fugard this is John, that was the norm. That made me think that perhaps then this white man is not as bad as the others if he could be part of a black group and was referred to on a first name basis.”

Just as Dr Kani was starting to rehearse with the serpent players, the ANC’s call came and it was time to up and leave. They were scheduled to leave between 1:00am -2:00am the following morning. They received strict instructions to take nothing with them. They were cautioned, “If you are wearing a jersey you must wear two jerseys and a jacket, you must bring your knife because it’s a very dangerous journey.”

When it was time to leave Dr Kani missed the call and he remembers that night, “My father was very big man, he was 6ft 6inches tall, he came home very late and very drunk and it took my mother and I a lot of time to pick him up and put him to bed. When I finally put my father on the bed, I went and sat on my bed and while I waited for the call, I fell asleep.”

He pauses for a moment as if to recollect his thoughts, to reprocess how on earth he fell asleep.
“I f-ck-en fell asleep”, he repeats himself inconsolably and I am holding my silence to not disturb his grief. “I woke up at 4am and all my friends were gone, I think one of them came back out of a group of about 15, then flash forward to 1999, the others died in exile, and all my friends were gone.”

To move himself forward he joined the Serpent Players drama group. His goal was to be mentored as a writer, not as an actor, so he became the scribbler in the group, taking down notes and sequence cues for the actors. Though the plays were written in English, they always ensured that the stories they told were relatable.

“We were aware that the artist can no longer hide under art for art’s sake, because before you become an artist, you are a member of the community, meaning you are subjected to the inhumane ills of apartheid, therefore how do you deal with that?” he asks.

It became clear to him that the role of art is to reflect how the inner-self responds to the environment the artist finds themselves in, “If you grew up in the rural areas, you can’t paint an image of Hillbrow because you have no visual experience of Hillbrow. You are going to paint flowers; the mountains; the rivers and a land scorched by drought and famine. 

This is what informed the artist of his time, not television, film or the possibility of being famous. “That was a dream too far for us” He says. “What drove us was asking how can I utilize my art to liberate me first, thus liberate my people?”


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Port Elizabeth had proven too small a place to contain his ambitions, in 1972 he was fired from his job at the Ford Motor company and this triggered the move to Johannesburg. Dr Kani and his co-actor and playwright: Winston Ntshona decided to go professional; he had a feeling they would make it in Jo’burg because the city was abuzz with creativity, “There were shows like Sponono, King Kong; The Manhattans and Gibson Kent” he says.

So they followed the trail of P.E artists streamlining themselves with the city of gold. But they couldn’t go there empty handed, so they wrote ‘The Island’ and ‘Sizwe Bansi is Dead’. “Athol Fugard was assisting us in creating and directing the plays, but he was doing his own life, he was writing his own plays. We were just meeting and using his skill as a director.”

‘Sizwe Bansi is Dead’ addresses the apartheid regime’s restrictive pass laws while The Island is based on a true story set in an unnamed prison. The plays were widely performed and cracked not only the Jo’burg scene but also made its way onto international stages. In 1973 it opened at the Royal Court theatre in London and Dr Kani salivates over that glorious moment.

“The English theatre had never seen anything like that, where the actor and the audience like the storyteller of the days of old sit in one circle and tell the story to each other, allowing the audience to participate. We broke the fourth wall, which is an imaginary wall in theatre that prohibits the actor from engaging with the audience. We came with a new South African format, which was known as protects theatre.

They singled out a member of the white audience and delivered the following lines directly to their face, asking: “Would you let this happen to you? You’re sleeping and the police come, they pull the blankets and you’re not wearing a nightie, they grab your husband by the scarf of the neck in front of your children. What would you do?”

The audience felt that the performance imposed on their space, but the reviews spoke about a new theatre, “so avant- garde that even William Shakespeare never thought about it.” The play touched too many nerves and wreaked havoc across the world. Suddenly the spotlight was on them. They toured the U.S; opened in Yale and on Broadway. Winston Ntshona and Dr Kani scooped Tony Awards for both ‘Sizwe Bansi Is Dead’ and ‘The Island’. The doc playfully jokes about not knowing exactly which award he holds in his possession. “Winston received his own Tony award and I received mine, we didn’t share!”- hahaha

The award introduced them to a life of superstardom.
“We won the Tony award on Sunday, and Tuesday I was moved to a dressing room filled with snacks, sushi and Champaign to entertain the people who came to see me after the show. My salary was doubled from $2750 to $5000 per week.”

They were well- received by the exiled community, including Oliver Thambo who had asked to meet with them. The doc was well aware that meeting with Thambo was a political offence. “I knew ndizakubanjwa” but refusing to do so would make him look like a sell-out and that would have been an even bigger crime amongst his people, so he heeded Thambo’s call and Oliver affirmed the significance of their work, saying: “What you did this evening to this English audience is what we’ve been trying to do for over 20 years to explain the evil of apartheid. Your names will be added to the list of freedom fighters in Dar es Salaam.”

The duo became a world renowned force, but their international acclaim didn’t keep them from getting detained. When they came back from their tour in Australia, they suffered yet another arrest and were imprisoned for 23 days, particularly because they decided to do a local tour. When the world caught wind of their arrest, the arts community around the globe protested for their release. Following their release, Dr Kani enjoyed a special immunity from being arrested thereafter because he threatened to inform the international media if the South African government ever detained him again.
“I said I’d tell the international media that you have arrested me for doing a play.”
He knew the government couldn’t afford to risk that because they were trying to prove to the world that they were reforming apartheid laws. Sadly, this wasn’t his last encounter with the South African police.

In 1985, he featured in the play: Miss Julie, where he caused a raucous by kissing a white woman on stage “…and boy oh boy did I pay for it,” he says.

With arrests, harassment, bomb threats and death threats, to a point where my mother urged me to stop.” He was sunken in way above his head but that didn’t stop him from kissing yet another white woman on stage in the Shakespearean tragedy: Othello in 1987. There is a great satisfaction Dr Kani enjoys in knowing that his work has been a thorn pressed into white flesh, every time the security police worried about him “It elevated me to the upper echelons of the struggles, I was the person who was seen by the community as the one who is fighting for us! That was a great honor sana lwam’.” His grin widens and so does my laughter.

Dr Kani’s elevated stature grew way beyond the township and his community. When Mandela was released in 1990, he was part of the arts constituency of cultural activist that went to visit him in Orlando. He is beside himself with pride when he recalls Mama Winnie’s voice.

“When we walked in she said, tata I know who that is, that’s John Kani. The Native Who Caused All the Trouble. Up until he died, Mandela called me by The Native Who Caused All the Trouble.” 

‘The Native Who Caused All the Trouble’ is a 1989 play starring Dr Kani, it is based on the story of Tseliso; a deeply religious man who gets evicted from his land on the Cape Flats. When he is tried in court, he highlights the difference between ‘God’s law and white man’s law’.

Dr Kani’s works has never strayed too far from real life experiences. His plays are a timeline of events that speak back to his own struggles.

In 2001 he made his debut as a sole playwright with ‘Nothing but the Truth’. This was a letter dedicated to his brother uXolile, who was murdered by the South African police. The play was propelled by the Truth and reconciliation hearings, where both he and his brother were mentioned because their perpetrators were confessing to his assassination attempt and his brother’s murder.
The family declined the summons; his mother said she knew that her son was killed by soldiers but she didn’t want to put an image to their murderous faces.

Dr Kani notes his conflicting views about the TRC. On one level he believed in the hearings but on the other hand, he couldn’t bring himself to forgive because he couldn’t handle it, up until he was confronted with the same question while traveling abroad. He was asked: “how do black people forgive?” And when he grappled with the answer he decided to write ‘Nothing but the Truth’.

Story-telling can be a daunting task; while some have mastered the art, others have fallen short of the story. When I ask the doc what makes a good story, he doesn’t get technical with me; he lays it plain and simple.
“It is one that is born from the need inside you to tell of an incident that touched you personally.
I cannot judge it. A good story never addresses the political or social issues, it is the story of the individual. For example; there is no story about Aids, but there’s a story about a girl who wakes up one day and her parents are both dead, she is 16, has younger siblings and the household becomes headed by a child.”
His plays are definitely built on this foundation.

Throughout Dr Kani’s career right up to the 90’s, the doc admits that he has had to make difficult decisions to stick to the roles that don’t contradict his beliefs. He only commits to work that enhances his craft, knowledge and the black man’s dignity. “I would not play a boy or a woman and child abuser.” He says. This meant that he got less work as an actor, there was less food on the table and he had to learn to stretch his income until the next role came. But the tables turned right after Mandela was released from prison. The work was explosive and he was finally endorsed by the South African government. Together with Winston Ntshona they both received the ‘Order of Ikhamanga’ in Silver for their excellent contribution to theatre and the struggle through their work for a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa. In 2006 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Cape Town and in 2013 the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University awarded him an honorary Doctor of Philosophy. The main theatre of the Market Theatre complex has been renamed ‘The John Kani Theatre’, the accolades keep piling and this is where the struggle to keep level headed began.
“ You begin to believe the things they’re telling you” he says “that you’re the best thing since sunlight soap.” ha-ha-ha! Fortunately for the doc, his wife has managed to ground him well and he thanks God for her presence in his life.

“Thank God I married a beautiful woman who gave me beautiful children and made sure that the big head does not go into her house.” I look at him as he nods to say “yes, John Kani has never been to her house.” “ He lives in back-stages, in television sets and in films. At home ndingumyeni. I am Mandi’s husband, I am my children’s father and the neighbour.”

So I ask the well-travelled Dr Bonisile John Kani how far behind the South African film, television and theatre Industry is in comparison to its international counterparts and he assures me that “artistically, we are way ahead but as an industry, in the commercial sense, we are still lagging behind. We haven’t turned the arts into a business, it’s still half entertainment and half ‘for just the love of it’. We’re perpetuated by the ‘I’m doing arts for art’s sake mentality’ but if someone pays at the door, it’s a business!”

Dr Kani doesn’t shy away from calling himself a business, “There is something I produce called my talent and there’s something called John Kani, which is my brand. I look after it zealously. My agent works for me!” I hope one day South African actors can reach a point where they can also share his sentiments. For now we will work to build a better industry, but what does that entail?

Dr Kani advises that to make our industry better, we need to begin by encouraging young writers to write good stories, which will need good trained actors, fantastic directors and broad marketing on a continental and international scale. “We need to take ourselves seriously so we can get paid well.” He says there is no structure for paying actors. “Tom Cruise can get paid 40 million but if I ask for just one million it’s a problem! We need to have a concept of how powerful we are so we can make work that the business man can invest in and get their money back.” 

His approach to improving the South African Film industry is one that doesn’t rely on stories of angst to fill our cinemas. He says we need to move away from that because they don’t sell! He uses Leon Schuster as an example of how people support stories that make them laugh. He recalls a time in South African cinemas when Harry Potter opened in the same week as Leon Schuster, “do you know that he made double than the Harry Potter movie? Because he has a recipe that is purely unapologetic about making money, which is to make people laugh; he is not overtly political and he doesn’t care about political correctness.”

He advises that the South African film industry needs to first learn to make great commercial movies in order to make money, when the industry becomes sustainable, then we can sneak in a film that speaks of our identity. He brings in the logic behind International actors playing the lead in South African Films.

“We cannot be burdened by the fact that we must tell the story of our people, for as long as rich people, black or white don’t invest in our movies and they allow international corporations to invest in our films, they will be the ones to tell our stories. If they want to do a movie about Walter Sisulu, Hollywood investors will first ask who is playing Walter? If you say Denzel Washington, they’ll put 300 million on the table but if you say Patrick Shai or John Kani, there is no opportunity to make that 300 million back because it’s not a major block buster, it’s actually an art movie and we need to do away with that! We need stories with a happy ending and within that happy, there needs to be a life lesson we can learn.”

Dr Kani is definitely living out his happy ending, He is done shooting ‘Captain America’, and he’ll be back in the U.S in October to finish shooting ‘Black Panther’. He is currently working on the Lion King which only opens in 2019. His diary is loaded with work, plays, and films up until 2019.

“So if I’m looking for work it’ll be in 2020” he gloats. He did say that he functions like a business, “I am freaking out that I can’t be 80 and poor, so I have structured my business right up to the age of 80, so that by the time I turn 90, I am in a wonderful summer house on the beach somewhere still acting”

DR JOHN KANI | PORTRAITS

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